I was faced with an interesting moral dilemma over the weekend, that I can honestly say would not have been dilemma at all five or six years ago. But where I am in my life right now, I found myself questioning things that, up until this point, I considered to be givens in a functioning society.
So I was driving home in a nighttime snowstorm - one of those storms that comes up very quickly, drops mountains of snow, sleet, and ice upon whatever happens to be in its path, and generally causes severe havoc on the roads because everyone was unprepared for its rapid onset and unexpected intensity. Now, as I believe I have mentioned here before, I don't like driving even when the sun is out, the birds are singing, and I know where I'm going. In this case, not only was the storm blinding and the roads instantly icy, I was driving in a place where I had never been before and had no idea of any way to get home other than where the GPS was taking me.
But I must say, even in my state of fear and fishtailing, I was doing a pretty good job of not panicking. Then, as I eased my way around a rotary (traffic circle), I felt the car begin to slide out of control. I stepped on the brake, kept sliding...and although I tried my best to swerve out of the way, I ended up hitting a car that was parked in front of some shops inside the rotary.
ARGH! (although that's not the choice word that actually came out of my mouth) I got the car back under control, got out of the rotary, and saw the sign for the highway up ahead.
I almost kept going. I almost skidded and slid my way up to the onramp toward the beacon lights on the highway that would lead me safely home. There had been no one around to see anything, the owner of the car would never know who did it or how it happened, and this was one of those situations where although I made an unavoidable mistake, I could get away with it scot-free and no one would ever be the wiser.
I'm ashamed to say that I actually considered doing just that. But ultimately, my conscience caught up with me and I just couldn't. So I bypassed my exit sign, painstakingly made my way back around to where I had been, parked on the side of the road, and left my name, phone number, and an apology on a piece of paper in the car's windshield wiper. (There was so much snow coming down that I thought (hoped?) that maybe it would end up being soaked through and ultimately unreadable but alas, I got a call from their insurance company the next day asking me about what happened and pointedly letting me know just how much "at fault" I was for the incident.)
The dent on their car was very minor. There was no damage at all to my car since I was going so slowly. The insurance agent told me time and again, "You did the RIGHT thing." My husband told me over and over again, "You did the RIGHT thing." I told myself repeatedly, "You did the RIGHT thing." But then I had to ask myself:
In many ways, yes, I did. In the "what goes around comes around" category of karmic law, I absolutely did the right thing. In the category of "what would I want someone to do for me in this situation?" I absolutely did the right thing. I believe that most people who believe in the concepts of right and wrong would agree that I absolutely did the right thing. But how many of those people would have stopped? Honestly? Fewer than most, I think.
There were no witnesses. Not another soul was walking by or driving by or looking out of a store window. No one was injured, the car was still drivable, in fact, if I had a dent as small as that one on my own car I probably wouldn't even bother to get it fixed. One could argue that the "right" thing to do in this situation was to get myself home as quickly and safely as possible to avoid a worse accident (of which I passed several on my way home). So how do we define what's right and what's wrong in a situation where it's up to only us?
As I said, a few years ago it never would have occurred to me to NOT stop. I would have known in my heart and in my bones that this is what a person does in this kind of situation. No question, no hesitation. But over the course of my lifetime I have been lied to by friends, abandoned by people who claimed to love me, betrayed by people who swore they would never do such a thing, and sabotaged by co-workers claiming to be on the same team. Time and again I have seen people do only what's right for them, without the slightest regard for what someone else might need or want in a situation, and observe those people leading (what seem to be) very happy and fulfilling lives. I have seen self-centered people get exactly what they want, often at the expense and/or humiliation of others, and it doesn't seem to bother them at all. I know people who go through life only thinking "What's in it for me?" and would have driven on home that night without a thought or care for the person who owned the other car. It wouldn't have occurred to them to stop, even for a moment, or if it had, they would have justified not stopping in the blink of an eye and moved on. For them, the right thing to do, always, is look out for #1 and don't ever put yourself in a position where you could be blamed or have to take responsibility for something unpleasant. I hate to say it, but in that moment of writing down my name and number, I envied those people and their decision-making guidelines more than just a little.
But then I thought, what kind of world would we live in where everyone behaved like those people? Would there be charities to help out people in the midst of a hard time? Would there be communities to rally around others in the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy a few weeks ago? Would there even be concepts like compromise, give-and-take, or "do unto others" in our society? It seems to me like while we are certainly taught when we're young about big things being right or wrong (killing, stealing, bullying), we're all born with a conscience to help us out in those situations that can have gray areas.
(And if someone is about to argue about how there are no gray areas when it comes to right and wrong, I would direct them to the news footage of the past few months leading up to our most recent Presidential election. There were sure a lot of people who were absolutely, positively, unequivocally certain that they were right about certain things, and that certain other people and issues were equally as fundamentally wrong.)
So, with all that we've been taught, with all that we've learned, and in the words of Jiminy Cricket, letting our conscience be our guide, how do we know in any given situation what is the right thing to do?
We don't. Every situation is different, every person is different, and every person has had a different life experience. Everyone has different opinions on what is right and wrong, and everyone has reasons and justifications for the decisions they make and the actions they do based on them. But I only have control over one of those people.
I'm the one who looks at my face in the mirror every morning and gets to decide if I like what I see. I'm the one who has to be comfortable going to sleep every night with the choices I have made during the day. I'm the one who has to determine what is right or wrong for ME, in my life, regardless of what other people might say or opine, or do. And the truth is, it doesn't matter if other people are self-centered or selfish or don't care about others. Because they are the ones who have to look themselves in the mirror every day and answer to their conscience, which I have to believe is speaking to them, if ever so faintly.
So do I believe that I did the right thing? Yes. Am I bothered by the fact that I actually questioned that fundamental belief that I've had as long as I can remember? You bet. But it reminded me that no matter what anyone else says or does, I have to live by my own moral code, and that I also have the opportunity and responsibility to teach that code to my children. And if that means stopping in a horrible snowstorm to do something that is pretty much guaranteed to cause me aggravation, stress, and probably a pile of money, I have to do it anyway.
Because it's the right thing to do.